California National Guard deployed to assist regional food bank during coronavirus pandemic
The California National Guard jumped Wednesday into the massive effort to feed Sonoma County’s hungry, a crisis that has swamped local food banks since the start of the 3-week-old shelter-in-place order related to the coronavirus.
About 40 U.S. Army reservists primarily from Northern California deployed to the Redwood Empire Food Bank just north of Santa Rosa to pack emergency food boxes to be handed out at 300 sites across the county. The assignment represents the Vallejo-based platoon’s first mission during the ongoing pandemic and is considered crucial to meeting unprecedented demand at the North Coast’s largest food-relief organization as unemployment has soared and need has spiked sharply.
Compared to wildfires, floods, planned power shut-offs and also the 2008 economic recession, the current disaster is much worse, officials with the food bank said. Almost overnight, the nonprofit was sending out each day as much non-perishable and frozen food, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, as it distributes in a typical month.
The request was staggering. With officials estimating that production needed to increase at least tenfold to suffice, and regular volunteers — many of whom are seniors looking after their own health — falling off, the county reached out to the governor for reinforcements.
“The need is there and that’s why they’re here. They are a lifesaver,” said Erika Carstensen, Redwood Empire’s supply chain manager. “I was struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And they show up and I can totally see the light.”
Outside under the afternoon sun, the men and women wearing camouflage fatigues and blue medical gloves made quick work of their objective in the food bank’s back parking lot. In under 30 seconds, a donated wine box was folded, taped and pushed down a metal conveyor belt to receive a set of dry goods that included a 2-pound bag of rice, a can each of pork, peaches and pears, boxes of raisins and pouches of beef stew.
Repeat 7,679 times across two assembly lines and the day’s job is done. Then come back and do it again for at least the next week, according to current orders from up above, but as long as the next month and a half if the situation requires.
The soldiers, ranging in age from 18 years old to their late 30s and trained in logistics, were not permitted by their ranking officer to speak to a reporter. But motivated by a musical variety of Phil Collins to The Killers from a nearby speaker, the unit, split into two teams, paced each other in competition and good-natured grief among allies before breaking for lunch.
Lt. Ian Panlilio, their unit leader, underscored that platoon members were, like countless others, facing their own challenges back at home in the wake of the coronavirus, but for now focused only on the mission at hand — feeding those in need across the region. The 26-year-old East Bay native, himself a student at UC Berkeley, was forced to prematurely end an online course in web development to show up for duty.
“Everyone here has a civilian life that that’s their main thing, and we had to drop it to do this. At the end of the day, we’ve got to do the mission and we signed up for this,” Panlilio said through a white N95 mask. “Regardless of our own personal lives, we’re all here to make a difference. We’re doing our best to help the community.”
The extra manpower couldn’t come soon enough. Under normal circumstances, Redwood Empire already serves an average of about 1 in 6 people across Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties, and that ratio is now expected to rise, said David Goodman, the food bank’s longtime chief executive officer.
“Every time there’s a disaster … we respond,” said Goodman, who has been at the helm of Redwood Empire for almost two decades. “What’s different about this one is … this is everybody. This is the entire community.”
As a result, the food bank entered into an agreement where once its funds are exhausted, the county government will act as Redwood Empire’s financial backstop to sustain the critical safety net. In the meantime, Goodman called on residents to continue to step up and give of their time, food and money to ensure their neighbors don’t go hungry in this difficult period, because, this time, donations aren’t coming from elsewhere in the country.
“The cavalry is not coming. In order to feed people, it’s not self-sustaining; It takes resources,” Goodman said. “It’s time for people to understand that our community at-large has been getting the milk for free for 35 years. Now they need to buy the cow.”
At the moment, wine case-sized boxes are of particular need for the food bank after transitioning to a more hygienic, drive-through pick-up process at distribution sites due to the virus. Beyond that, be it the temporary service of the National Guard or a few bags of local produce, the food bank will take whatever assistance it can get.
“It’s all moving at such a quicker pace that there’s not one thing that I would say I wouldn’t take right now,” said Carstensen. “Anything that comes through this door as donated, it’s going right back out to somebody in need.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.